Terrified of monogamy
May 15, 2018 8:38 PM   Subscribe

Non-monogamous person having second thoughts. Wanting to try monogamy, but can't get over a veritable monogamy-phobia that was instilled after an emotionally abusive, controlling relationship. How to get over this fear? Anyone else have this fear? How to navigate being not quite monogamous, but not entirely non-monogamous or poly?

Some context:

27 year old cis het female, on a med to treat anxiety, and another emergency med in case of panic attacks. I have been diagnosed with PTSD caused by parental treatment in childhood.

So it seems I've been oriented to non-monogamy for as long as I can remember. I recall in kindergarten declaring to my parents that I had two boyfriends (neither of these boys even knew I existed, but such is the fanciful nature of childhood. Anyone who even complimented my dress was subsequently declared my boyfriend). Later, I learned through TV and other people about monogamy, and took it as a given that that was just how things worked, though I questioned my high school boyfriend as to why he would be upset if I (theoretically) kissed another boy, because I would not be upset if he kissed another girl. I'll say now, I've never cheated on anyone, and any non-monogamy was always consensual.

My first serious relationship (as well as my first and only cohabiting relationship) was co-dependent and possessive. Let's call this man X. We were deeply in love and built a wonderful domestic life, but I was young and didn't realize how damaging it was that he told me what to wear, what to think. I wasn't allowed to sleep over at my (female) friends' houses because I "belong in his bed, and only sleep beside" him. He used language of ownership, saying that we belong to each other. I was also not allowed to speak during sex (he would shush me when I spoke), and he dismissed any of my requests to indulge in kink, without further discussion.

Another element of this is that any threat to the relationship was also a threat to my well-being and livelihood. We were basically two poor kids who escaped our situation by building a life together, both ended up graduating from Ivy League schools, worked ourselves to the bone. So I panicked if I ever found anyone else attractive, even in passing, because there was so much at stake. When we finally did break up (at my request) I was at risk of being homeless. The experience was very nearly (and my therapist suggests, literally) traumatizing. The moment he realized I was serious about breaking up, he spent hours screaming, cradling my coat and rocking back and forth on the floor. I was afraid he would try to kill himself if I left him alone. He later confirmed this suspicion to be true.

I could write a novel about the aftermath, but I've already described the things that are relevant to my headspace now, so I'll just say that we separated and I swore to never promise anyone monogamy again. I read The Ethical Slut which was massively inspiring, listened to podcasts and had wonderful conversations with non-monogamous folks, and validated my philosophy on relationships and non-monogamy.

At present:

After a particularly painful, toxic relationship with another non-monogamous person, I am really internalizing the fact that it's not monogamy or non-monogamy that makes a relationship healthy, but emotional maturity, patience, empathy and communication. Something my (monogamous) best friend asked me planted the seed of doubt. She asked me if I became non-monogamous out of fear, and I said, yes, absolutely. Then she questioned whether I should actually just address the fear itself, rather than excluding monogamy from my options.

So now, having chewed on that conversation for a year or two, I'm reconsidering whether I really *am* inherently wired to be strictly non-monogamous like I thought (I am pretty reserved, feel overwhelmed juggling multiple friendships let alone multiple relationships, feel attraction rarely, and dating is scarce). The "dating is scarce" bit is what kinda concerns me too. And I forcing myself to consider monogamy because I can't find anyone to date and I want to expand my available options? Almost all the people I become attracted to identify as monogamous. And in general, it's so rare to find someone at all with a good head on their shoulders, who is emotionally available, gentle, and willing to understand as well as be understood. I haven't found anyone who (imo) fits this criteria in 6 years.

The thing is, I think I might have found finally someone who fits the bill. Let's call him Y. We haven't known each other for too long, but it seems so promising. I told him recently about where I'm at with being non-monogamous, but wanting to try monogamy, and he did confirm he'd be uncomfortable with me "seeing other people." I interpreted this to mean he's strictly monogamous, and though I totally expected him to respond as such, I nearly had a panic attack. It's a genuine, physical response of terror a the thought of finding myself in a relationship like the co-dependent one I was in before. My mind immediately conjures scenes of what *could* happen, how things *could* go wrong. My mind goes blank and I have difficulty speaking. This kind of response doesn't feel healthy, and I don't want fear to rule my life.

But now that my brain is clouded with fear chemicals, I'm having (what appear to be...?) reasonable doubts. Like, what if I'm totally fooling myself thinking I could dabble in monogamy? Am I just bowing to social pressure? Would the non-monogamy community see me as a traitor? Am I just being beguiled by my monogamous friends? Even as I realize this all sounds so over-dramatic, I am still tense with anxiety.

I just want to form a healthy long-term partnership that can mold and adapt to what is most healthy at the time. If I were to craft my ideal relationship, it would be one that is monogamous at first as we build the foundation of a relationship, and opens as we build trust and with the passage of time. What "open" means would depend entirely on the circumstance and the partner. It could be as simple as allowing flirting, or dancing with members of the opposite sex. But some of my monogamous friends would not call this "open." They would just call it "monogamy." I think what I really seek is just a chill-ass relationship.

I told Y that if we do decide we'd like to be in a relationship, we'll have to talk and clearly define what fidelity and infidelity means for us. I'm also terrified at the prospect of this talk, I'm always afraid of him blowing up like my first serious boyfriend used to. Ugh, I'm constantly *searching* for ways in which Y (or any man for that matter) might bear some similarity to X, and getting the urge to abandon ship the moment I find something.

I invite you to answer any or all of the following questions:
1) Do you have a similar story to share, and has it been resolved?
2) Do you or anyone you know successfully navigate a kind of grey area or "monogamish" relationships?
3) Should I stop dating Y before it goes any further? Should I wait until we know whether we'd like to pursue a relationship to have an in depth talk about monogamy? Or should I do that pronto?
4) Folks with anxiety or PTSD or anything similar- do you have methods for coping with panic?
5) Anyone identify as a nonmonogamous person who rarely finds others attractive? As such, do you find that you're able to be in monogamous relationships?
6) How do you deal with social pressure from both monogamy purists, and non-monogamy purists?
posted by Dendrites to Human Relations (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For me, a great tool for dealing with these kinds of questions is to think not of a label, but "I'm doing X right now." My partner and I (celebrating 25 years together) have had periods of being actively poly and of being only notionally poly, because we were busy raising young children, or for other reasons. Right now, for instance, I am not open to new sexual partners, because I don't have room for them in my life. Someone who knows my history might expect me to be willing to explore a new relationship; in fact, just a few weeks ago a friend asked if I'd be interested in adding sex to our relationship.

I told them that "right now, I am not open to new sexual relationships," and, because we know each other pretty well, a little bit about why. They totally got it.

My point is: you don't need to figure out everything at once.

With this new person you're mutually interested in, you could say, "For right now, I'm OK with only seeing you. I'm not sure that will always be true, but if it starts to change, I promise to talk to you about before taking any action with someone else." Y might or might not decide to date you on these terms, but you've been honest, which is the most important thing for both of you, but I think it's better to have this kind of conversation sooner rather than later. And to keep having it as needed.

It's important to learn to ignore purists. Nobody else gets to decide what kind of relationships are right for you, except the people you're having relationships with (or the person you're having the one relationship with).

The key to navigating this stuff--and I think relieving some of your anxiety, as well--is to be as honest as you can with yourself and with your partner(s). For instance, you can tell Y that you have reasons to be uncertain about promising and practicing monogamy, and describe what you need to feel OK in a relationship. Since you've had bad experiences both with a monogamous partner and a non-monogamous partner, you know it's not inherently one or the other that's the problem--you say as much. So maybe identifying the factors that made those relationships toxic would be the most helpful thing.

Also, I'd advice against making assumptions. "I'd be uncomfortable with you seeing other people" does not necessarily mean "I am strictly monogamous." You could pursue this further: what would he be uncomfortable with? What might alleviate some of that discomfort. It might be, for instance, that he would be uncomfortable not knowing whether you were seeing someone else. In that case, you could assure him that you would always let him know if you were seeing someone else, and what the status of that other relationship was.

Think of your own situation: you're uncomfortable with monogamy, but also interested in exploring it. I think you can articulate at least some of what makes you uncomfortable: controlling behavior, poor boundaries, and so on. You might say, "I'm OK only seeing each other, but I'm absolutely not interested in moving in together," for instance.

You get to decide what your own particular boundaries are that will help you feel safe in a relationship. (Y gets to make these decisions for himself as well.)

I am traditionally a pretty promiscuous person--I'm attracted to a lot of people, and am generally wired so that "yes, let's!" is my default reaction to being invited to fool around. Before my partner and I got together, I had a couple of periods where I felt like I'd been rushing into things too quickly, and decided to be celibate for awhile, to give myself time to chill out, and reflect. I guess this is my way of reiterating that it's OK to make a for now decision without figuring out everything.

If even the thought of monogamy gives you panic attacks, you might think about learning more about what healthy relationships look like, and how to assert boundaries, in non-sexual relationships, before you move back into dating. Practice using those tools in lower-risk situations. Or, explain some of this to Y, and then practice with him. Are you able to say No to an outing you don't want to go on? Can you ask to eat at the restaurant you most want to eat at? Is he able to hear and respect your boundaries--if he wants to go to a stock-car race and you're not interested, does he accept that? If you've had Chinese three dates in a row, and he wants Chinese again but you're really in the mood for Italian, can he be gracious about that?

This could be a form of desensitization such as people use with phobias. Practice when the stakes are lower.

You really can figure this stuff out, and you really can get better at knowing your own needs in a relationship and asserting them, and at recognizing red flags when they show up early. I dated a woman once who, on something like our second or third date, noticed that my car needed new windshield wipers. "We need to get that taken care of," she said, and I thought, "Oh, hell no we don't. We've been on two dates. My windshield wipers are not your concern." That's a red flag, and in fact in the process of not dating this woman anymore, I found that she did indeed have both terrible boundaries and a really distorted internal picture of what our relationships was.

I've gone on too long, but I hope something I've said has been helpful.

Best wishes.
posted by Orlop at 9:14 PM on May 15, 2018 [24 favorites]

I just want to form a healthy long-term partnership that can mold and adapt to what is most healthy at the time. If I were to craft my ideal relationship, it would be one that is monogamous at first as we build the foundation of a relationship, and opens as we build trust and with the passage of time. What "open" means would depend entirely on the circumstance and the partner. It could be as simple as allowing flirting, or dancing with members of the opposite sex. But some of my monogamous friends would not call this "open." They would just call it "monogamy." I think what I really seek is just a chill-ass relationship.

Cart before horse and all that. Sounds like you just want a healthy relationship. I would not consider my wife casually flirting or dancing with other people infidelity, nor freak the fuck out about it. Beyond casual? I'd expect she would talk to me and we'd figure it out.

Date Y and take it a day at a time. Your old boyfriend was an asshole, don't define monogamy by his psychosis. Also, ditch the labels and categories and eventualities, they aren't helping you, they're doing the opposite and making the simple really complicated.

Start with: "Hi, I like you, let's go on a date" and go from there, with open communication. You don't need to have it all figured out right away. Maybe you'll break up in a week, maybe you'll grow old together in a 7 person marriage group, maybe you'll get hitched and convert to Mormonism and make a million babies never look at another person ever. One day at a time.
posted by so fucking future at 9:16 PM on May 15, 2018

You’re 27, which is prime time to try relationship styles and decide if they work for you. Go ahead and date Y and see how it feels, but do be very communicative about your needs and expectations, and respectful of his.

Also, anything that “purists” have to say about anything can be safely disregarded.
posted by ejs at 9:19 PM on May 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Every relationship is going to come with some choices, some are just harder than others. I'm not surprised you find it hard to think about them, and I'm so sorry you've had such a tough road to this place in your life.

So, choices. I'm bisexual, but I chose to settle with my partner and yeah, that means no more lady fun times, but I'm happy with that choice. I've also thought a lot about non-monogamy (and yep a lot of that thinking has happened on the exit of relationships which were, or became, unhappy. But I've chosen to be monogamous because that means I get to be with my monogamous partner, and again I'm super happy with my choice. He's awesome, and our relationship is massively worth the "compromise" on these inclinations.

Whoever you date, there will be compromise. Whether it's a kink, where one of you wants to end up living, how often you travel together, what religion you might practice together (or not). Small choices and big choices to make.

The best possible thing you can do is to make the choice that makes you happy right now, and tell yourself "I will be content with this choice for as long as it makes me happy". And if/when it doesn't anymore, that's the time to talk to yourself, the other person or people involved, and/or your therapist, to find out why and see if it's time to make a new choice.
posted by greenish at 2:50 AM on May 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

It sounds like sexual monogamy is not a serious issue/concern for you. It’s DEPENDENCE that you’re worried about. You want to maintain the financial and emotional independence that will provide you with the freedom to make choices about your relationships without having your whole life come crashing down. Try not to conflate those two things, and things might become clearer for you.

I am not monogamous, but go long periods with only one partner, either because I’m too busy to seek out others or because I don’t have the urge to. That doesn’t mean I’m monogamous, it just means I only have one partner at a particular time. So don’t let THAT determine how you want to define yourself. That said, it doesn’t sound like you necessarily have a strong connection to the nonmonogamous label, and unfortunately you’re correct in that it does severely limit serious dating options. (Or at least it does for me as a 42-year-old in a small city.)
posted by metasarah at 7:03 AM on May 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Firstly, it doesn't matter how other people see you. However you live your life, you aren't a traitor. It really distresses me how non-monogamy has become a purist ideology for many people.

I tried polyamory with a previous partner, even though (subsequently) I realised that I am strictly monogamous. The experience broke up the relationship but I learnt a lot about myself and my preferences. Though it didn't work for me, some monogamous people try non-monogamy and find it works for them. On the other hand, some non-mono people actually practice monogamy due to their partner being monogamous.

I suggest that, as long as you keep the communication lines with Y open, you should just try monogamy. It really doesn't mean anything more than that; it is like the beginning of any relationship when you try to see if it will work. Maybe it doesn't work because you are non-monogamous, or for one of hundreds of other reasons. It's ok to try and then realise it isn't for you, as long as you are able to be clear about your feelings.
posted by thereader at 12:21 PM on May 16, 2018

I agree with a lot of what Orlop said above. I've spent most of my life being in monogamous relationships, and thought that was a pretty strong part of my sexual identity, but in the last few months I've been dating someone polyamorous who's in a committed relationship with another person. Monogamy wasn't on the table if I wanted to pursue dating her, and so I gave it a try. I've been really, really pleasantly surprised at how comfortable polyamory can be when I actually feel secure and comfortable in the relationship and fully trust everyone involved. Given your circumstances, I think you could possibly have a similar experience if you were to start a new relationship right now that happened to be monogamous while also being with someone healthy and trustworthy for you.

At this point I feel like monogamy/polyamory isn't much of an "orientation" for me at all, but rather a description of any particular situation in the moment. I think it could be helpful to reframe your thinking in a similar way - you don't have to think of yourself as being one or the other, but emphasize in your thought processes that you'd currently like to see how a healthy monogamous relationship can feel. You're not making any kind of permanent or core-values related decision, just going with monogamy for the time being to try it out. None of the decisions you're making on this front need to define you as a person.
posted by augustimagination at 1:02 PM on May 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Orlop's advice is perfect. I've been yes to your questions 1 and 5 in the past. I know myself well and I choose carefully who to talk to about this sort of thing, so I don't care a lot about 6.
posted by clavicle at 2:15 PM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

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